With its dreamy beaches, tropical rainforests and abundant waterfalls, it’s easy to overlook the delicious local food on offer in Samoa. Samoan cuisine might not be as famous as Chinese, Indian or Italian, but if you’re planning a trip there, you’ll soon find out just how tasty the food is – and also the important role it plays in the local culture. From parcels of baked coconut milk wrapped in tender taro leaves to slabs of coconut bread drenched in caramel sauce, we've put together a guide to some of the most popular Samoan foods to try.
What is Samoan cuisine like?
Before we get into the most popular Samoan dishes, you might be wondering what Samoan food is like. Fresh fruit and vegetables including taro and taro leaves, banana and coconut (in all forms) are all staples of Samoan cuisine. As is seafood, which is hardly surprising when the islands are surrounded by rich waters home to diverse species of marine life. Samoans also have a sweet tooth, and you'll find plenty of delicious desserts on the menu (many of which are made with coconut and banana).
Like other island nations in the South Pacific, the traditional way of cooking is in an umu – a shallow pit filled with hot volcanic rocks. One of the best opportunities to try Samoan food cooked in an umu is at a fiafia night – a night of celebration, traditional fire knife performances, dance and music followed by a huge feast.
Taro leaves are a popular ingredient throughout the South Pacific, and Samoan cuisine is no exception. Palusami is made with coconut milk, chopped onions and salt which is spooned into young taro leaves and folded into a round parcel. The parcels are then wrapped again in foil and baked or steamed until the coconut milk is semi-solid. The basic palusami recipe is very tasty, but you might also like to try it with corned beef.
2. Faiai eleni
Faiai eleni is a Samoan fish bake made with fresh or tinned mackerel, taro leaves, sliced onions, spices and coconut milk which is baked in the oven until it's crispy on top. This filling meal is often served in a hollow coconut shell.
Fa’apapa is essentially a thick slab of sweet, fluffy coconut bread. You’ll find it in most Samoan households, and also on the breakfast table at your hotel or guest house. The simple fa’apapa recipe consists of flour, sugar, coconut flakes and coconut milk which is mixed into a dough and baked in the oven until golden. Fa’apapa is also used to make fa'ausi – the fancier version of fa’apapa which is generously doused in a sticky caramel and coconut sauce.
You’ve probably eaten dumplings, and you might’ve also tried dumpling soup, but chances are they were filled with meat or veggies and came with a side of soy sauce. If you hadn’t already guessed, Samoans love their sweet treats, so it’s not surprising they have a sweet version of dumpling soup. That’s right, dense, doughy puka, or ‘dumplings’, drenched in a gooey soup-like sauce made from coconut cream and brown sugar.
Sapasui is the Samoan version of the popular Chinese dish, chop suey. This crowd-pleasing meal consists of vermicelli noodles fried with garlic, meat, veggies and soy sauce. The ingredients will vary from restaurant to restaurant, but it might also contain fiery slices of ginger and zesty lemon juice.
6. Pani popo
Pani popo, which means ‘coconut bun’ in Samoan, is Samoa’s national sweet treat. The buns are soaked in a sweet coconut and syrup sauce and then baked in the oven until they’re golden on top. Sweet, fluffy and versatile, this moreish treat is a great breakfast food, snack or accompaniment to a coffee.
7. Keke pua’a
Keke pua’a is a bao-type bun that means ‘pork cake’ in Samoan. These bitesize flavor bombs are usually filled with pork or other meats such as chicken or lamb, onions, garlic and herbs which are then steamed until the dough is puffy. You might also find fried keke pua’a.
8. Koko alaisa
We all have that one dish (usually from our childhood) that makes us feel like we’re getting a hug on the inside with every spoonful. Well, for many Samoans, that dish is koko alasia. The basic recipe consists of cooked rice mixed with coconut milk and chocolate powder from Samoan cacao (cacao grows abundantly on the islands), but there are many variations such as adding orange or lemon zest to balance the richness of the chocolate. Some like to eat koko alasia super thick, while others prefer a creamier consistency – both are delicious!
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